Ensemble Casts

From Writers Helping Writers: Structuring an Ensemble Cast with Plotlines

This caught my eye because Silver Circle is a heck of an example when it comes to an ensemble-cast novel.

POV characters: Natividad, Miguel, Alejandro, Justin, Ethan

Other characters, OMG, there’s no end to the list.

Important continuing characters: Grayson, Ezekiel, Thaddeus, Keziah, Riss, Cassie, Etienne, Colonel Herrod (General Herrod now, but whatever), Lieutenant Santibañez, Sergei Vasiliev, Martya, Anya. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but this ought to be most of the important ones. Plus some may make an appearance later, though they haven’t stepped on stage yet.

Important new characters: A black dog named Gerhard Breault, a black dog called Gris, a black dog named Diego Martinez. Luis Santibañez’s uncle, Senator Santibañez. Keziah’s cousin Malik. I think that’s it for really important new characters … no, wait, also Vitya, the kid who was infected by, if that’s the right term, the poroniec demon.

Massive number of characters. You recall I was trying to think of subtitles involving the idea of “scattering before the storm” for the first book. Silver Circle starts off with one thing after another piling up, it’s very exciting and fast-paced, and then the characters do scatter. Initially, Natividad and Alejandro are both in one group (with Grayson and some others), while Miguel (and Cassie) are off in another direction, Justin (and Keziah) are off in a third direction, and Ethan (with Ezekiel) are off in a fourth direction. Then things happen and groups get reshuffled, so that Natividad and Alejandro are separated, Ezekiel joins Natividad, and Thaddeus joins Ethan. Justin and Keziah remain together.

One reason to divide everyone up is so that I don’t have to deal with so many important characters in any given scene. The other reason is because plot-related things are taking place all over and different people are handling different parts of this. The plethora of characters and the fast-moving sprawling plot both contribute to this story being a bear to work on, though when I re-read the 600-odd pages I have right now, I was pretty pleased with most of those pages.

But back to the topic. What does the linked post say about ensemble casts?

Typically with ensembles, the trick is that the characters and their plotlines have to somehow be connected to or influencing each other.

We have Frodo, a lead, with his own set. He has an external journey of taking the Ring to Mount Doom, an internal journey of his struggle with the Ring, and a relationship journey with Samwise.

Then we also have Aragorn, another lead with his own set. Aragorn has an external journey with the war, an internal journey over taking his place as king, and a relationship journey with Arwen (and arguably Eowyn).

The Fellowship also breaks down into more plotlines. Merry and Pippin have their own external, internal, and relationship journeys (though to a lesser degree), and so does Gimli. Eowyn, Arwen, and Smeagol are other notable characters who get their own personal journeys.

Every character, though, is ultimately connected into the world/society plotline with the war against Sauron—they are each influencing or being influenced by it. So this is the glue that holds the sets together.

Most of the bold is mine.

I think this is basically true, in the sense that the broad plot is the glue. It’s not just that all the characters are “influencing or being influenced” by the war against Sauron, either. They are all also influencing or being influenced by the other characters, though this may take place at a distance and the characters may not know that themselves. That is, at the end, Aragorn knows that he’s trying to draw Sauron’s attention away from Frodo and Sam, but they don’t know anything about that. They only know that Sauron suddenly looks away from the lands around Mount Doom, giving them a chance to make that last heartbreaking effort to get there.

Of course you know what the basic goal is for everyone in Silver Circle — the initial goal, anyway. It’s to get rid of the witches. This proves to be more challenging than everyone involved might perhaps hope. It also doesn’t turn out to be the ultimate goal. Regardless, the linked post is quite right: this goal, the war against black witches and black witchcraft, is definitely the glue that holds everything together. And yes, everyone is influencing everyone else, probably in ways that won’t be clear to the characters themselves until the end, if then.

Here’s a different and interesting idea from the linked post:

However, on the rare occasion that [the characters are not linked together by the plot and are not influencing each other], then often the glue is the theme. You could technically write a story where the characters never cross paths, nor fit into a greater plotline, but they each have a journey about the same theme

And that’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? Except to me, that seems more like an idea for a set of short stories. Pity the author of the post didn’t suggest a work of some kind, either a story collection or a novel, structured this way. I guess for this to be a novel, everyone would have to be in the same world — it would be more elegant if they all intersect in ways the reader sees, even if the various characters don’t influence or even notice each other.

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8 thoughts on “Ensemble Casts”

  1. I think I read a short manga series like this – it was perhaps called ‘Raindrops’? – about connections between a bunch of different people who never met but who influenced one another through once-removed relationships, coincidences, etc. It was a fascinating series of chapters that spiraled through a neighborhood during a set period of time. I think the theme was a storm and how it affected different people – thus ‘Raindrops’. I feel like that format has a lot of potential to be interesting to people who like oneshots.
    Now I kind of want to write a novel like that. Huh.
    Also, I’m going to have to go back and reread all of the Black Dog series before Silver Circle comes out. I’m looking forward to it! :D

  2. I was thinking of something whose unifying connection was a place, like the characters were all customers of a diner. Which in turn made me think of some of the old James Michener doorstops like Hawaii. (I really liked those books. They were part of my transition from the children’s section of the library to adult in my pre-YA days.)

    It’s been a really long time since I read it, but isn’t Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey an ensemble cast with no connection except coming together in the place and time of the accident?

  3. Becky Chambers’ Record of A Spaceborn Few has that ensemble cast, united by place and theme. I didn’t particularly like the way it was done, but it might be interesting to analyze from this perspective.

    E.C., I’ll have to look for Raindrops; sounds great. Have you read Otoyomegatari (A Bride’s Tale)? It’s a series of stories about marriage in the mid 1800s where the jump between stories is a brief interaction between different characters. Really beautiful artwork.

  4. @ Mona,
    I have indeed read Otoyomegatari! I love that one, and yeah, it’s got somewhat of the same format. Connected short stories/oneshots seem to be more popular in Asian literature and comics for some reason.

  5. Right? The episodic format, the stories without a ‘huge’ external or internal plot, and slice of life stories are more acceptable and popular in Asian lit. There are thematic anthologies, of course, but it’s (usually) not the same.

    Actually, I read one of Tiffany Yates Martin’s posts recently (after Rachel linked to that grammar one), about a literary novel called The Namesake, in which she writes, “[…] because she invests us so deeply in her characters, Lahiri taps our curiosity about their choices and where they may lead. She also maintains steady microtension throughout […]”

    And “[…] the characters are so real and engaging that readers feel quotidian events like dating and marriage, family issues, finding one’s place in the world, etc., matter as much as they do to the characters.”

    And “Lahiri vividly and minutely paints various locales, cultures, societies that are highly specific in their details […] yet tap into universal experiences and values. She plunges us into worlds and lived experiences that may not be our own, but incorporates powerful, relatable themes of belonging and assimilation, identity, cultural and generational divides, etc., that make the story feel intimate, engaging, and universal.”

    All of which made me think, oh, she’s talking about why slice-of-life stories work so well, without knowing (?) there’s such a category. If something like this is called literary fiction, I wouldn’t pick it up, because I’d assume it was dark and depressing. But if it’s marketed as slice-of-life, then yes, perfect. It’s definitive of comfort reading and cozies.

    Argh marketing!

  6. Mona, I think “intimate” may sometimes be a way of conceptualizing slice-of-life. Or low-tension slice-of-life. I think this is true even though an intimate story can be high tension and, for that matter, high stakes.

    This makes me think of Interior Life by Katherine Blake, where the slice-of-life story about the housewife getting her home and life in order somehow became more compelling than the fantasy narrative braided in, about the defeat of the dark lord. It’s a really interesting story to read because of that.

  7. Oh, I have Interior Life. I’ll pick that up again. I did want to see how that dual narrative works out.

    What would you consider an intimate story with high tension? I’m pondering the connotations of “intimate”.

  8. Well, maybe something like MARAG! It’s a family-oriented, small scale story. Yes, that curse could have gotten pretty bad, but the relationships were the most important element, and they were intrafamily, intratribe relationships, basically, with a relatively small number of people involved. But at the same time, a lot of effort and can-we-do-this tension, with an edge of horror to it, even.

    I was really thinking of stories like Shinn’s Shapechanger’s Wife, though. Just a very few characters, very small scale, with a creeping tide of rising horror, then a fairly brutal climax followed by a gentler denouement.

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